Windows 7 won’t be successful until 2011

Microsoft’s future begins next week. That’s when the company ships Windows 7, its latest operating system. If Microsoft stumbles with Windows 7 as it did with Vista, people will start asking whether Microsoft has much of a future at all.

While many of us will see lots of advertising in the mass media and on the Internet, the real selling of the product will be behind the scenes to Big Business. Corporate buyers all but ignored Vista. ISVs were lukewarm to it. And Microsoft was embarrassed when its hardware partners offered their business customers downgrades to Windows XP, which most companies thought of as a superior operating system. If Windows 7 does not catch on with Big Business, some believe Microsoft will be toast.

There’s some evidence to suggest that might be the case. Historically, analyst firms like Gartner caution their clients to wait until Microsoft has released at least one service pack before making the upgrade leap. And in April Dimensional Research published a study of 1,142 IT professionals about their planned adoption of Windows 7. A mere 16% said they were planning to upgrade in the first year of its release. And if Microsoft can’t convince corporate IT pros to upgrade, it will fail again.

But I, for one, believe Windows 7 will not fail. In the long run, it will, I predict, be the most successful commercial OS Microsoft ever has released. However, that could be one long run.

The world’s economy remains in the doldrums. And in that Dimensional Research survey cited above, more than half of the respondents said it was the economy that was influencing their decision to stay on windows XP.

Part of the problem is that to get the full benefit of Windows 7 (just like getting the full benefit of OS X Leopard), users have to upgrade their hardware. For most good-size companies that’s a multi-million dollar decision. Given that most PCs are fast enough and Windows XP is good enough, putting off that kind of decision is easy for executives.

Microsoft justifiably will tout that Windows 7 is cheaper than XP or Vista for business. Based on the experiences of three good-sized early adopter installations in the U.K., Netherlands, and Florida, Microsoft is claiming IT savings of labor and management of between $89 and $160 per PC. I don’t doubt the savings. But you save more, of course, if you don’t spend in the first place for new hardware.

By almost all accounts Windows 7 is a great OS. Even Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal has given it an enthusiastic welcome. But most companies are hurting now. Deploying lots of new PCs to employees is not in the cards for most businesses through 2010. And certainly cash-strapped consumers aren’t going to run out and buy new PCs just for the pleasure of using Windows 7, especially when the existing tools are “good enough”.

I expect the new OS will have a very slow adoption curve. That will cause Microsoft bashers to crow with glee at the “failure” of Windows 7. That negative publicity will also hurt the upgrade cycle even more. So much so, it may even cause the fall of Steve Ballmer.

But, as I say, in the long run, IT will make the shift to Windows 7. In droves. By mid-2011 (excepting the still possible total global economic collapse) the Windows 7 party will be in full swing as businesses worldwide rush to upgrade their systems. Microsoft’s future will be assured. And Microsoft haters will have to find something else to whine about.